No, Google can’t censor all the child porn

Front page from the Daily Mail, featuring the headling "What will it take for Google to block child porn?" with a picture of Mark Bridger, the murderer of April JonesIn the wake of the conviction of Mark Bridger yesterday for killing April Jones, a 5-year-old girl he kidnapped from a green on a housing estate in Machynlleth, mid Wales, last year, the focus has been on his fondness for child and child-abuse pornography which was found on his computer (along with other abusive images and film, including a rape scene from a film which had been copied to a video tape without the rest of the film). The Daily Mail led with the headline “What will it take for Google to block child porn?”, claiming that Bridger had searched the network for phrases like “naked five-year-old girls’, ‘nudism five-year-olds’ and ‘pictures of naked virgin teens’”, and that “child safety charities, including the NSPCC, demanded that the internet giants introduce immediate controls to stop paedophiles gaining access to child pornography”:

John Carr of the Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety said: ‘If these images were not available on the internet then men like Hazell and Bridger might not go on to kill.

‘We cannot blame the internet for these people but it has opened pathways that lead them on to violent pornography and paedophile material.’

This is a fairly good example of the “do something” mentality. Mark Bridger had previous convictions for violent offences, including an attack on his former landlord and an attempted armed robbery in south London, but he had no previous convictions for sexual offences and there is no suggestion that he abused the children he came into contact with while working as a lifeguard, or any of his own six children. There had been no way to catch him previously and nobody had any indication that he was a sex offender; the worst people knew about him is that he was a serial liar and fantasist who lied about and exaggerated his past, claiming to have been in the army and the fire brigade (when, in fact, he dropped out of the fire service while in training because of his arrest over the armed robbery). There is nothing anyone could have done to arrest him before he decided to kidnap and murder April Jones, so they turn to how the Internet stoked his fantasies and might have turned him into a killer.

The problem is that Google has neither the ability nor the authority to make sure that nobody has access to underage or abusive pornography. They do have a system called SafeSearch which filters out content judged to be inappropriate unless it’s switched off; however, ‘inappropriate’ simply means unsuitable for children and possibly offensive to others, not necessarily illegal. While it hosts content through Blogger, Picasa, Google Plus and other services, and (like other social media sites) has procedures for removing illegal content, it is impossible for it to filter out all searches for illegal content without blocking some innocent material, as well as searches carried out for academic or journalistic reasons, particularly in countries where that might be perfectly legal (it’s an American company, and free speech is protected there, and attempts to ban abusive pornography have in the recent past been struck down on free speech grounds), as well as by law enforcement. It can no more protect us entirely from abusive pornography than it can from spam; it can only weed out what it finds. It is up to the police to find the source of this material and close it down.

It is also not simple for them to electronically detect child and abuse pornography, because the basic distinctions that we make every day are very difficult to programme into a computer, because computers work on the basis of very basic yes/no tests. An algorithm to tell a clothed man from a clothed woman, for example, would end up being very long indeed and quite possibly error-prone, because are many details that could appear in both, or could appear more commonly in one but occasionally in the other. The same is true of telling an innocent act (or footage thereof) from an abusive one, particularly if tell-tale signs such as the use of knives or guns are absent, and a skilled operator could produce material in which the abused victims do not look (at least, not to a computer trained to look for particular signs) as if they are being abused, for example, because they have been given alcohol or drugs beforehand, off camera.

Google, despite being the world’s biggest search engine, despite owning a number of major social media services and despite being the principal author of the software that runs on many modern smartphones, is not the world internet authority. Neither, for that matter, is Microsoft. Just because the police did not catch Mark Bridger in time (perhaps because he did not download enough child abuse images to attract the attention of the police, who do monitor these things), we should not be thrashing around looking for someone to blame other than Mark Bridger. As George Monbiot, who lives in the area where April Jones was murdered, wrote in the Guardian today, “there are no lessons to be learned here, except that there lives among us a very small number of people who are capable of almost anything”.

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